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This 13th-century advice given to students is still relevant today



Jaime Septién - published on 09/15/18

St. Thomas Aquinas' first tip was to start with the simple things ...

September is back-to-school time, and there are countless tips in magazines and even newspapers for making the most of it.

But why not go to the heights of wisdom to get some good advice? Legend has it St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1275) offered timely guidance to a student who asked him what he should do to “find the treasure of wisdom.”

The answer is simple, short, direct, and wonderful – and it’s as relevant for us today as it was in the 13th century.

The first thing St. Thomas asks us is not to go “directly to the sea, but to access it by the rivers.” That is, start with the simple things; the complicated ones will come in due time. Then he adds some more advice “for your personal life”:

1. Think first before saying anything. Avoid gatherings “where you talk too much.”

2. Make sure that “there is no duplicity” in your conscience.

3. Be “constant in prayer” and “fall in love with recollection,” because only when we are saved from the noise of the world will we find the “light to understand.”

4. Always treat everyone with kindness and “inwardly, do not condemn anyone.”

5. Do not gossip. It only causes disparagement and distraction.

6. He advises the student to stay informed about what is going on in the world, but not to be worldly.

7. At the center of his advice, St. Thomas makes it clear that to learn something in depth, you have to set clear goals, “avoiding all dispersion.” He says this is achieved by following the paths “that the best have marked out.”

8. We rely heavily on our computer and smartphone today, but we would be wise to follow what St. Thomas suggests: “Store in your memory” — your own, not your device’s — “all the good that you hear or see, wherever it comes from.”

9. Google or Wikipedia aside, he reminds us that it’s not enough to have easy access to information: “Strive to understand. Clear up the doubts that might arise. Fill your mind with things like someone who fills a glass, little by little.”

10. Finally, it is necessary to measure our strength and never overreach oneself. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Aquinas ends his brief letter by saying: “If you do all this, as long as you live, you will be like a fruitful vine in the vineyard of the Lord. In addition, you will achieve whatever you set out to do.”


Read more:
St. Thomas Aquinas and the life of the mind: A University of Chicago lecture


Read more:
Back to school and back to work, but Christ is our classmate

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